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Robin Cook was wrong about what the media say about us. The principle of subcontracting how we organise the work of the British House of Commons to the editors of tabloid newspapers is very dangerous, at least until such time as we can elect the editors of British tabloid newspapers and hold them to account. We can never win that argument, so we should not even engage with it. We should do what is right with regard
to the duties that we have in this place and the way in which we can best represent our constituents.
Slightly cruelly, I took my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) to task about his use of the term expenses, because we run our constituency offices with allowances. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has said that the word recess is hardly known outside this place, but in tabloid world the recess is a long summer holiday. As hon. Members have said, we gained no favours with the editors of our tabloid newspapers when we came back in September.
I will not name the newspaper concerned, because I do not read itsuffice it to say that on 15 January 1934 its front-page headline was Hurrah for the Blackshirtsbut I said to one of its journalists, If you think the recess is a holiday for Members of Parliament, Ill make you a deal. Take a week out of your family holiday and come with me to my advice surgeries, which often end at 10 oclock at night, on the roughest and toughest estate in my constituency. Come and visit the schools; come and do the casework with me; come and pay home visits. Like most hon. Members, I carry out home visits. I continued, At the end of 50 hours or perhaps 55 hours, which is considerably fewer hours than we put in when the House is sitting, you tell me whether that is a holiday. Funnily enough, the journalist did not want to play. We must stand up for our work here and our work in our constituencies. If we concede the argument that we must come back in September for public relations reasons, we will not be doing the job that we were sent here to do.
I do not have outside business interests or a private income; I am a full-time Member of Parliament. I do not have access to resources to top up my budget to run my constituency office. I do not receive an additional allowance for being an MP in a high-cost area such as Reading. I do not receive additional London allowances, but I have to pay London wages in order to get quality staff, which I have: Viki, Ann, Cara and Alex put in an inordinate amount of time and are not paid enough money. As a trade unionist and someone who has argued for justice in the workplace, I find it embarrassing that the allowances do not allow me to pay increments to reward loyalty. I can just about afford to give my staff an increase equal to inflation, but in many other employment scenarios, one would be able to pay increments to reward long service.
Two years ago, when I received death threats from the British National party, I had to install security measures at my office. I got the princely sum of £1,500 towards putting in shutters and panic alarms. The restnearly £4,000I had to find from my own pocket. I am not making a big deal about it: my salary doubled when I came to work in this place, as housing associations did not pay a lot of money. Nevertheless, I have not had the resources to pay the extra money needed to do some of what I would like to do so as to do right by my staff or constituents.
I am sure that I could go out there and get additional employment, as many Members do. Members who are going to vote against the communications allowance, which will be useful to many like me, should reflect on
whether it is morally right for them to be claiming their full parliamentary allowance while raking in income from elsewhere during time in the working week that is taken away from representing their constituents and doing their duties. I have not cross-referenced the way in which Members intend to vote or what they have said with their declarations in the Register of Members Interests, but that is a point worth putting on the record.
It is worth analysing what we achieved during the September sittings in 2003 and 2004. That information is provided by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who answers on behalf of the House of Commons Commission. Over the past three years, approximately £17 million was spent in each summer recess on works projects across both Houses of Parliament, about £10 million of whichsome 60 per cent.was spent in the Commons. The cost of disrupting those works has been estimated at an additional £2.5 million for both Houses, or £1.5 million in the Commons. The experiment was not without costand did we achieve that much, apart from putting through a ban on fox hunting and allowing people to invade the House of Commons while we tried to operate in a building site? In 2003, the House sat from Monday 8 September to Thursday 18 Septembera total of eight sitting days. On two of those days25 per cent. of the timethere were no Divisions. On one of thema Wednesday, when one would expect us all to be herethe maximum number of Members participating in the six Divisions that occurred was 346. That is not a great track record for the experiment of September sittings.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): My apologies; I wanted to be here earlier but I have been in Select Committee. My hon. Friend falls into the chasm of assuming that if Parliament sits there must be legislation and Divisions. In my view, we could hold light sittings for questions and statements in a Committee Room that did not need to be reinstated because of ongoing works. That would enable Parliament to undertake scrutiny and deliver accountability at low cost or no cost.
Martin Salter: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but unfortunately that option is not before us. As the Leader of the House knows, there is a case for a more radical look at the parliamentary year, and I hope that we will do that. The question before us today is whether we return to the September sittings envisaged in the Cook reforms, and I would say that there is a powerful case against that. I could quote similar figures for 2004, but I will not detain the House.
Let me move on to what has occurred and has workedthat is, the ability to table parliamentary questions during what would have been this years September sitting. I was shocked to discover that we did not have the ability to table questions for the whole two weeks; it was a restricted privilege, for some reason, and we were allowed to do it only for four or five days. Nevertheless, full credit to hon. Members who managed between them to table 733 questions relating to every Department apart from Scotland. That is a good start, and I hope that it will be replicated. In the soundings that I have taken among hon. Friends and other colleagues, there has been enthusiasm for the ability to continue to table questions, and I believe that that is the intention of the Leader of the House.
Finally, there is the issue of what we actually get up to in September, or at any rate during the summer recess. People take their holidays at different times. Like most Members, I work through the summer recess. My surgeries continue, as do my school visits. I cannot visit schools in August, for obvious reasons, but I can visit local businesses. I also find that I can get my head around issues, as I cannot always when rushing from one meeting or engagement to another, given the fairly frenetic calendar to which we must all adhere in this place.
There is also the work of all-party parliamentary groups. I am not one for jetting around the world, but I experienced a very enjoyable day out with the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), a fellow member of the all-party angling group, when we visited Sparsholt fishery management college. It is not normally possible to find time for such activities.
There are residents groups in my constituency. I commute back to Reading every night, and I can be back within an hour and five minutes. I can just about make an 8 pm meeting on a Thursday. Even given the luxury afforded to methe ability to do that on a Thursday night, without having to cram everything into FridayI cannot get around to visiting all the organisations that I want to visit by concentrating my activity on Fridays. I need that time. I think that many of us need that time, and many of our constituents expect to see us during that time.
Mark Lazarowicz: I respect my hon. Friends views, but according to my understanding of the arrangement for the September sittings and the reorganisation of the parliamentary year, it did not result in either less or more time for parliamentary sittings. In fact, one of the consequences of the September sittings was that we finished earlier in July. I do not see why my hon. Friend could not engage in all those extremely important activities during the part of July made available by the September sittings. Why is September better than July for that purpose?
The schools in my part of the world were on holiday during one of those weeks, which answers my hon. Friends question fairly definitively. Moreover, I am not sure whether we were given that extra week in the second yearlike my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), I think that it was taken away from us thenand, of course,
House business has a habit of crowding in. I am talking more about the principle of September sittings.
The subject of Members postage and communications has exercised the Modernisation Committee for some time. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, Southhe is not present now, but I said that I would mention thismade some rather acerbic comments. I am not surprised, because his views are known, and the figures show him to be one of the lower users of the Members postage budget. He has been in this place for a long time and I have huge respect for him, but those who have been here for a long time should not so readily dismiss the enthusiastic and conscientious way in which many Members elected from 1992 onwards have chosen to go about their business. There is no rule book and no job description, and we must discover for ourselves how best to represent our constituents.
My postage budget is quite low this year; it has been higher in previous years. I agree with much of what was said by the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples). There is no direct correlation between the amount that a Member spends on postage and his or her eventual electoral result. The fact remains, however, that huge issues sometimes blow up in our constituencies. In an intervention earlier, I mentioned the closure of Ashford hospital, which affects the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). He presented a petition with 25,000 signatures; the closure was a huge issue in his constituency. Because there was no postage cap, he could legitimately write to every one of the constituents who had presented him with the petition.
I too have carried out mass mailings to petitioners on important subjects. It all depends what is blowing up on the patch at any one time, but the fact remains that if Mr. Speaker choosesas he has the right toto impose a cap on our postage and establish a finite budget, when problems explode in constituencies, Members on both sides of the House will not have the wherewithal to do the job that they want to do in the way they want to do it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South said that he accepted the case for circulation of Members surgery cards and contact details. Hardly anyone would argue with that, but how on earth would we fund the production of surgery cards and contact details if they were to be distributed to every elector within our present budgets? As I said earlier, many of us are topping up those budgets from our own pockets.
In June 2004, the Modernisation Committee produced a unanimous report entitled Connecting Parliament with the Public. It was informed by a questionnaire sent to all Members covering the rules relating to the use of prepaid envelopes and direct mail. As MPs cannot communicate with constituents on matters on which they themselves are statutory consulteesI have mentioned the closure of post officesnor write to their constituents on matters before Parliament, nor consult them about the implementation of legislation and its effect on their lives and communities, it is important to reflect, and to argue the case for amending the current House rules.
Members responses to the questionnaire circulated by the Modernisation Committee were instructive. MPs wanted a revision of the rules on unsolicited mail, particularly to inform constituents in a given area
about a local issue, such as a planning matter. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) referred to that topic, and I agree that the rules are confusing.
Members were asked in what way MPs ability to communicate with constituents could be improved. Some sought better facilities for e-consultations, and referred to the use of websites and further electronic media. Asked whether the incidental expenses provisionthe IEPwas sufficient to meet the needs associated with dealing with casework, Members overwhelmingly said no.
Nearly half of Members thought that the rules on mailings were not sufficiently clear.
Circulars include the annual and Parliamentary Reports which are now produced by many Members but they can also include standard letters which are in routine use by many Members, cards listing dates and locations of surgeries and other non-partisan material. It may on occasion be appropriate to distribute these items more widely, rather than only sending them in response to constituents letters.
It is absurd that we, as elected Members of Parliament and full-time politicianswell, most of us are full-time politiciansare more disadvantaged than elected councillors. In Battle ward in my constituency, we have a huge new Tesco development. It will radically change the Oxford road in Reading. Many local shopkeepers are worried about whether they will be put out of business, and many local residents are worried about what it will mean for traffic flows, school places and goodness knows what else. My colleague, councillor Tony Jones, can quite legitimately mail out a questionnaire to constituents of the area through the members services of Reading borough council, but I, as their Member of Parliament, cannot do so, because that would be unsolicited mailing. However, if, in response to a councillora part-time politicianmy constituents raise a petition and write to me, I can then legitimately write back to them. We have an unclear situation, and this issue needs to be resolved.
I believe that the rules on prohibiting campaigning, fundraising or business correspondence should be confirmed and clarified. The rules on unsolicited mail should be clarified and amended to ensure that non-partisan mailings can be undertaken by MPs, to report on their own activities and to consult with constituents on matters before the House and on the implementation of legislation passed or pertinent local issues.
Voters continue to respect their local MPs and much of the effective communication of what Parliament does, especially at the local level and in the local media...The level of informed, transparent and engaged democracy that any citizen of the 21st century has a right to expect is, of necessity, comparatively expensive. Cut-price democracy will never represent much of a bargain.
I suggest that those Members opposing the MPs communications allowance, which will have the effect
of limiting the activities of some of our high spenders, are supporting a cut-price democracy.
Finally, I hope that Members will be consistent. I do not expect Members who vote against the MPs communications allowance in the Lobby tonight to claim it next year. It is right and proper that we are all under extensive parliamentary scrutiny: many of us will be watching.
Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter). Not only has he given a fabulous rendition of his viewssome of which I agree with, and others I disagree withbut he has enabled me to catch my first 20 lb carp, so I have a lot of time for him.
I am one of those dreadful Members of Parliament who communicate with their constituents via annual and bi-annual reports. I see nothing wrong with my constituents knowing what I am doing in their name. It is important for them to know that their MP is not only working in the House of Commons, but is around and about in the constituency meeting the people who matter to themthose who provide the many public and charitable services that go on in Broxbourne.
I am also pleased to say that I have something in common with the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). I, too, am the hardest working Member of Parliament in my constituency. I am the only Member of Parliament for Broxbourne, but I am the hardest working one. Indeed, the same goes for all 645 of us: we are all the hardest working MPs in our constituencies.
We cannot have a total free-for-all on allowances. In my view, our allowances are very generous. There is the office cost allowance and the staffing allowance, which together total some £108,000. Moreover, we are allowed to rob Peter to pay Paulwe can take money out of our staffing allowance and put it into the office cost allowance, for example, so there is some flexibility. I am very concerned at the idea of having limitless expenditure on postage, without any accountability.
Perhaps one way round the problem is to take an average of all 645 MPs postage. Such an average would include the highest and the lowest spenders, and might provide an average sum of perhaps £4,000 a year, on which most of us could operate, give or take a little less or a little more. But if we could not, we could always make up the difference from our office cost allowanceit is called managing a budget. We expect people in the public sector and in the NHS to manage a budget, so it is quite ridiculous that we MPs should not apply the same financial rigour to ourselves. I leave those thoughts on office expenditure with the House.
I hate to mention the newspapers, because I share many of the views expressed by the hon. Member for Reading, West in that regard, but I should point out that some newspapers are referring to our getting £10,000 to £17,000 in additional money for postage. I am sure that that is wrong and I hope that it is, because if we are seen to be spending that kind of money, it will bring us into further disrepute with our constituents.
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